Latif Yahia held the peculiar and unenviable position of body double for Saddam Hussein’s son Uday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. When Uday called on his childhood classmate to perform this role, Latif was promised he would live a life of luxury, but of course, given Uday’s proclivities, it was also a life full of horrors, experiencing wealth and power, attending parties and public events, while serving as powerless witness to Uday’s unchecked, famously brutal rampaging.
This is the story chronicled by The Devil’s Double, a fictionalized version of Latif’s story, in which Dominic Cooper plays both a reasonable and reasonably frustrated version of Latif and the psychotic, loathsome Uday. Both parts seem simplified for starker contrast, achieved through a pair of excellent performances by Cooper, made possible by convincing special effects.
Still, as much as the plot has been modified for dramatic purposes, it remains weak as drama. Sometimes it feels caught between bravado and gravitas. The director, Lee Tamahori, has made several American thrillers (like Along Came a Spider and Die Another Day), following his 1994 breakout film, Once Were Warriors, and The Devil’s Double is rather like a thriller. It maintains a constant suspense over what monstrous acts Uday will commit, and how much more Latif can stand. At times, the movie feels like a corrective to anyone who would watch Scarface and glory in Tony Montana’s inhumanity.
This caution is part of the film’s narrative structure, which not only highlights the contrast between the protagonists, but also between Uday and all his victims. Indeed, Latif is one of many. The poster for Devil’s Double—an image of Cooper covered in shining gold—recalls gangster movies and gangsta culture, as do Uday’s excesses. He threatens, murders, and rapes, not in the pursuit of money or power, which he has, as Saddam Hussein’s son, but instead to indulge in a twisted kind of childishness (an aim that is its own display of power). Uday wants what he wants, and he wants it now. His tantrums are frequent and often deadly. Cooper, affecting a high-pitched snigger of a laugh and a hair-trigger temper, portrays Uday as a boy’s id grown into adult-sized desires and depravities.
Cooper’s Latif is something like an opposite to this, judging and calculating, his disgust standing in for ours. Seething and distraught, he’s also charismatic in ways that match and differ from Uday. But Latif is trapped with Uday for much of the movie, unable to rebel against his captor/employer (he turns down the job at first, only to spend time in solitary confinement and threatened with the death of his family until he relents).
As Latif gets stuck in Uday’s world, the movie, too, gets stuck observing their imbalanced relationship. Uday rants about his connection to Latif—he sounds like a cop-taunting serial killer when he complains that if his body double leaves, he’ll have no one to talk to—but the movie, perhaps not wanting to cast aspersions on its source, invents no actual bond between the two; it’s confined to Uday’s delusions and insanity. If Latif has any meaningful connection to Uday, any shared assumptions or similar background, beyond resemblance and what is forced at gunpoint, the movie keeps mum about them.
As Uday proclaims his “brotherly” love for Latif (and also reveals an interest in sex with drag queens), the movie makes sure we know Latif shares no such inclinations with his monstrous tormentor. That is, Latif becomes involved with Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), a young woman kept on hand by Uday who loathes him just as much as Latif does. Sarrab’s ambiguity—whether she cares for Latif or sees him as a possible means of escape or bargaining chip—gives the movie some pulpy intrigue that it otherwise lacks.
This melodrama aside, the movie also shows signs of docudrama. It cuts to news footage repeatedly, updating us on the timeline as the first Gulf War approaches and proceeds, with clips featuring George H.W. Bush, images of the Highway of Death, and burning oil wells. It’s a respectful move, but doesn’t do much for the film’s momentum, and for stretches The Devil’s Double slogs from atrocity to atrocity. This may be true to Latif’s experience, but it keeps the movie from saying much beyond, “Wow, Uday Hussein is dreadful.” We knew this much going in. Latif’s story is no doubt fascinating, and Cooper gives a terrific dual performance. But the movie is only middling.